By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS -- President Hugo Chavez and his supporters show no sign of letting up in the campaign of hostility towards media organizations and publications critical of him and his policies. On the contrary, signs are that they intend to step up the pressure.
Officials from a local tax office in Libertador -- the only one of the five municipalities in the capital that's still under pro-Chavez control -- ordered the "closure for an indefinite time" of a daily newspaper, El Nuevo Pais, and a weekly magazine, Zeta, on Thursday. Both publications make little secret of their disapproval of the president and his policies.
The editor of El Nuevo Pais, Edgard Otalvora, said the officials had initially demanded to see financial records which were not on the premises. On discovering this, they imposed the closure order, he added.
Otalvora said that he didn't discount the possibility that the newspaper had been shut down for political reasons, and that the "message" from the officials had made it clear from the very start that they were intent on shutting the newspaper. He warned that the salaries and benefits due to employees working the presses at the newspaper could be affected by the measure.
The proprietor of El Nuevo Pais, Rafael Poleo, openly opposes Chavez. His daughter, Patricia, writes a column for the newspaper and lives in self-imposed exile in Miami. In a tool that has been used by the Chavez government against many Opposition leaders, she faces seemingly dubious criminal accusations in connection with the crisis in which Chavez was briefly ousted from office in 2002.
The government maintains that the crisis -- in which 17 people were killed after shooting broke out on April 11 that year as an Opposition march neared a bridge less than a block away from the presidential palce, Miraflores -- was an all-out attempt to stage a coup d'etat against Chavez. Elsewhere, the crisis is seen as a symptom of the political instability of the times that got badly out of hand after the marchers strayed from the authorized route.
Zeta adopts a more moderate editorial line. But it frequently publishes articles and analyses that put in question the government's political and economic management of the country. Its management made no immediate statement after being told that the weekly was being closed down, too.Globovision Head Back In Court
Only hours before the closures, the president of Globovision, a privately-owned 24-hour news channel that frequently points out the faults and foibles of the Chavez government, presented himself before a court as required under charges brought against him after a property he owns in an upmarket suburb of east Caracas was raided earlier this year.
It was the 18th time since July this year that Guillermo Zuloaga had appeared before the court. He is dubiously charged with a seemingly unique crime of "generic usury" and the case centers on the discovery during the May 21 raid of 24 cars from his dealership on the premises.
The formal accusation alleges the vehicles were being deliberately hoarded with the intention of selling them at higher prices later on. Zuloaga maintains that the cars were stored there for safekeeping after his dealership and its cars were recently attacked and damaged. Again, there's a belief -- encouraged by Globovision -- that the government is pursuing legal action against Zuloaga primarily for political reasons.
Ahead of his appearance, Zuloaga had accused Chavez of planning to jail him "within the next few days" in order to silence the channel for "fear of the truth." He vowed to continue appearing before court despite the risk that he might be ordered into custody. Officials secured a ban on him leaving the country, claiming that he might do so to avoid justice, but he repeatedly denies any intention of fleeing.
After the hearing. Zuloaga said that he had once again shown the court documents which he said demonstrated that everything to do with the vehicles had been in order. The government, he claimed, seemed to be "nervous" and worried about low participation at last weekend's internal elections of Chavez's ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), water and power shortages, and the high rate of violent crime.
A spokesman for the PSUV announced that the party would be keeping the figures for turn-out at the elections to itself. Unconfirmed reports have claimed that 45 percent or less of the PSUV's members cast a vote during the elections.
Chavez has publicly threatened several times to "revoke" Globovision's broadcasting licence. Apart from Zuloaga, three other senior figures at the channel including Director Federico Ravell also face legal charges. Another member of the board, Nelson Mezerhane, was accused of instigating murder and held in custody for two months, but the charge is said to have been "archived" three years ago.
The channel's studios and headquarters have been raided at least once by the National telecommunications Commission (Conatel), which is now under the direct control of Public Works and Housing Minister Diosdado Cabello, arguably the most powerful figure in the government after Chavez.
The offices were also the target of an armed attack in which armed men on motorbikes threw tear gas canisters, injuring two employees including a security guard.
That incident is alleged to have been led by Lina Ron, a hardline supporter of the president who's been linked with a string of dubious incidents in the past. While Chavez publicly reprimanded Ron after the tear gas attack, she was recently released from custody after being held at the headquarters of the Military Intelligence Directive (DIM), even though she's a civilian and faces charges under civil law.
Official authorization of a new radio station, Radio del Sur, which is to present news and programs with a Latin American regional slant, and is said to be backed by Chavez, was announced in the Gazeta Oficial. It remains unclear whether the new station is similar to Telesur, a Latin American regional channel set up by Chavez and based in Caracas, with other governments in the region as partners.